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Egypt: Freedom of expression backslides during the COVID-19 pandemic (Demo)

This statement was originally published on on 19 May 2020.


The 2020 first-quarter report on the “Freedom of Expression situation in Egypt” coincides with the outbreak of a global pandemic that has killed nearly 200,000 people worldwide, besides resulting in millions of infections. Such a crisis has prompted most countries to implement several exceptional measures to curb the spread of the virus. In this context, there are many rising debates on the adverse effects on citizens’ fundamental freedoms and rights because of such protective procedures. Particularly, on Freedom of Expression, Press and Media Freedom, Digital Rights, and the freedom of accessing and circulating information.

Thus, this report analyzes the Freedom of Expression situation in Egypt during the first three months of 2020 and the ramifications of the policies on public health safeguards by the Egyptian authorities.

The report is divided into two main sections; the first one addresses the Freedom of Expression situation in light of the current restrictions to control the Covid-19 outbreak, especially on citizens’ freedom of digital expression, Press and Media freedom, and the right to circulate information. The second section presents a subdivision of the violation patterns regarding Media Freedom, Digital Rights, and Freedom of Creativity. The report differentiates between Corona related violations and the frequent breaches due to the hostile environment against Freedom of Expression in Egypt.

At the end, this report concludes with some recommendations by AFTE urging the different bodies of the Egyptian state to respect all Freedom of Expression aspects. Also, it includes pressing demands of more transparent policies concerning the information on the pandemic developments and the confrontation action plans.

First: Freedom of Expression Vs. Exceptional Measures

Egyptian authorities have implemented several exceptional measures to maintain public health, after Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic by the WHO (World Health Organization), and its call for countries to perform every necessary, protective action. And also, after Egypt’s infection surge last March.

The most noteworthy steps are: restrictions on movement freedom through imposing a partial lockdown from 8 pm until 6 am, entirely suspending all education institutions, a complete or partial suspension of several governmental services that were visited by citizens, and activating electronic/online services instead. In addition, decisions to close places of mass social gatherings places such as theaters and malls.

Restrictions on Press and Digital Freedom

AFTE believes that some of these measures mainly aim to chain Press and Media work and restrict citizens’ freedom of digital expression via Social Networks. This stems from the fact that the government aspires to have certain narratives on the Corona spread in Egypt prevail and to ban any information regarding this matter, except for what state institutions release.

Coinciding with the onset of the Coronavirus, the Prime Minister, Mostafa Madbouly, has instructed concerned authorities to take all necessary, legal measures against anyone who broadcasts false news, statements, or rumors on the Covid-19 developments. Also, the Public Prosecution affirmed that it would address such fake news and stories according to the Law.

In an implementation of these decisions, the security forces arrested Atef Hassaballah Al-Sayyed Ahmad, a 43 year-old journalist at Al-Youm newspaper and the editor-in-chief of Al-Qarar Al-Dawly newspaper, from his home. The arrest came after a post on his personal social media account, denying the Ministry of Health’s numbers of infected people in Egypt. Also, the journalist Basma Mostafa, faced unlawful detention for nine hours. She was arrested while performing her work on covering a crowd of citizens waiting for a Corona test, at the Ministry of Health’s Central Laboratories.

Strikingly, the National security officer who interrogated Mostafa told her: “There are no Corona infections in Egypt. The journalists are behind all these rumors.” Such a statement reveals that the authorities consider the press role a part of the crisis, not a vital factor in facing it. AFTE rejects this attitude because it has severe ramifications regarding the society’s right to receive any information about the difficult situation the country is experiencing.

Moreover, the Supreme Council for Media has played a notable role in besetting the news and data on the Covid-19 spread in Egypt. For instance, the Council sent a warning letter to 16 news websites and social networks’ accounts concerning posting false news on finding a Corona infection case in Tanta City. It also included a directive that banned the publishing of any information other than the Ministry of Health’s official data. Also, the State Information Services ordered the withdrawal of the the work accreditation of a Guardian reporter and for them to leave the country – and issued a warning statement to a New York Times reporter. Both reporters published information on the Corona spread in Egypt.

Restrictions on Freedom of Access to Information

AFTE confirms that many problems mar the Ministry of Health’s and Prime Minister’s information. Whether it’s lack or inaccessibility, which hinders journalists and specialists from analyzing those numbers and data. Accordingly, it has restricted the Press role in revealing facts and holding officials accountable. This is an essential role and necessary for societies to overcome significant crises they face.

AFTE also sees that the absence of a Freedom of Information Act gives the security service the authority to arrest and punish journalists, who are addressing Corona issues or criticizing the government’s performance, under the pretext of publishing false news, circulating rumors and harming the public interest. It is also worth mentioning the Parliament’s constant delay of the FOI law issuance, although the Supreme Council for Media prepared a draft more than two years ago. And the Parliament is in its final convocation before reelection, the date of which is still unknown in light of the ongoing crisis. AFTE stresses that this situation negatively affects citizens’ right to information and knowing all the facts that maintain public health.

However, AFTE commends the Ministry of Health’s website about the Corona situation. It contains information on the cases of infections, deaths, and those cured and discharged from isolation hospitals. Also, it includes guidance on how to avoid infection and how to act in case of showing symptoms. AFTE urges the Egyptian authorities to display more transparency and provide updated information regarding its strategies of confronting all the crisis’s aspects. But the available information lacks two vital disclosure conditions, which make them neither accessible by the ordinary public, or journalists and specialists. The first condition is the information comprehensiveness, and the second providing them in forms that enable running an independent statistical or data analysis.

The official information doesn’t include sufficient infection categorization according to age, gender, timing, geographical distribution, etc. Also, there is inadequate data on the number of isolation hospitals, capacity, occupancy rates for each, equipment, and the number of medical staff and the available specializations. In addition there is a lack of daily, thorough information on conducted and remaining PCR swabs; and the need for a constant information feed on the government’s procedures of financial aid for the daily paid workers, obtaining terms, and its due dates. Such details would enable journalists, researchers, and specialists to analyze the data effectively to advise citizens about the virus spread. So, AFTE demands updated, comprehensive, and accessible information for better management of the crisis.

  By the end of this section, it should be pointed out that the first quarter of 2020 has witnessed varied Freedom of Expression violations by different State institutions. Concerning Press freedom, Digital Rights, Freedom of Creativity, which the following section addresses in detail.

Second Section: Analysis of The Violations Patterns

This section presents the Freedom of Expression violations regarding Press Freedom, Digital Rights, and Freedom of Creativity.

Press and Media Freedom

During the first three months of 2020, AFTE monitored 5 incidents, including 15 violations against Press and Media individuals and institutions. Some of these violations are related to the authorities’ restrictions on the press coverage of Covid-19 developments in Egypt, and the rest of the violations are not related to the current crisis.

The breaches have varied from raiding Press workplaces, arresting journalists, revoking work permits, etc. These violations are the usual practices of the Egyptian authorities to control any information flow other than the official one.

Corona related violations

The detention of the journalist Basma Mostafa, while performing her work

I am not telling you to quit your job, but you have to stop writing provocative, anti-government stories. And I am letting you go in favor of the sound, patriotic people who asked us to release you, and because you are a woman with two kids. But you have to stop working for suspicious places, and I don’t want to see your name on any arousing story again”.

These are the Last words that Basma Mostafa heard from the National Security officer who interrogated her during 9 hours of unlawful detention in one of the National Security headquarters and the Abdeen police station. Then, he ordered her release after handing back her phone and personal belongings.

The incident began while Basma was covering a crowd of citizens waiting for a Corona test, at the Ministry of Health’s Central Laboratories, for the Mada Masr website. Although she was cautious not to draw the police personnel’s attention, they spotted her taking photos of the crowd via her phone. However, knowing that Basma is a journalist, the security threatened her with filing a report against her in the police station, charging her with impersonating a journalist, and filming without a permit, because she does not have the Journalists’ Syndicate ID card.

After a while, the security forces escorted Mostafa to Abdeen police station where she faced strip-searching. Then,  the station chief ordered her to open her phone and she agreed, after many refusals, on the condition of keeping it in her hand. But in her testimony, she mentioned that the security managed to unlock her phone by themselves and searched all photos, videos, conversations, most of them personal. And she added: “the National Security Forces interrogated me in Abdeen police station, for 3 hours, about stories I prepared and my workplace.” Also, she said that the police allowed her to make a phone call to inform her husband of the arrest, but they denied his presence in the station when he came to ask about her.

Later on, the security personnel moved Mostafa by a Jeep to one of the National Security headquarters downtown. Mostafa said that they interrogated her for another half an hour about her work telling her that Egypt is Corona free, and the journalists who are behind such rumors. And then they told her “you are free to go”.

Accreditation revoking and deportation of a “Guardian” reporter

On March 17, 2020, the State Information Services issued a press statement that canceled the license of a Guardian reporter and gave a warning to the chief of the New York Times bureau in Cairo over false figures on the Coronavirus in Egypt.

The Guardian published a report that cited a study by a Canadian medical doctor claiming that infected people in Egypt may amount to more than 19,000. Also, the New York Times reporter posted some tweets, via his personal Twitter account, including figures from the same source study. The SIS’s statement considered this as “false estimations”, adding that both reporters relied on a sole unreliable source of information without seeking other official sources, such as the Ministry of Health or the WHO office in Cairo for rebutting in accordance with the Press work basic ethics. The Egyptian officials demanded the story be retracted or that the Guardian publish an official apology, according to the aforementioned statement.

Interestingly, in the early morning on March 17, before the press statement, the official account of the State Information Service on Twitter had posted a series of tweets stating that SIS had decided to shut down the Guardian’s office in Cairo and revoke its permit. And also, it had decided to issue a final warning to the correspondent of the New York Times newspaper in Cairo, stipulating that he should refer to the official sources concerning the news on Egypt and to abide by the professional rules. However, the SIS’s account deleted these tweets shortly after and published a press statement, several hours later, in which the decisions were less harsh.

On the other hand, the Guardian published an article saying that Egyptian authorities forced its journalist, Ruth Michaelson, to leave the country after she reported on a scientific study that said Egypt was likely to have many more coronavirus cases than have been officially confirmed. The Guardian also said that Michaelson, who has lived in and reported from Egypt since 2014, was advised by the British embassy and her own contacts that members of the country’s security apparatus were seeking to immediately remove her from the country. Furthermore, that Michaelson was asked to meet Egypt’s visa issuance authority but she was advised by German diplomatic officials in Cairo that she should not attend the meeting under any circumstances. On March 20, 2020, she left Egypt on a flight to Germany, and her departure leaves the north African country with no full-time British newspaper correspondents, according to the Guardian’s article.

Read the full AFTE report.

The post Egypt: Freedom of expression backslides during the COVID-19 pandemic appeared first on IFEX.


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